Horror fans of the last few years might recognise the name Jennifer Kent. Her previous film, The Babadook, was a success both critically and commercially (comparatively anyway) and instantly put her on the radar of fans and critics alike, and made her next film one to watch.
That next film materialised as this, The Nightingale, while not strictly speaking a horror film, there certainly are elements of Kent’s horror stylings to its narrative and structure.
Set in early 1800s colonial Tasmania, it tells the story of Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who sets out for violent revenge against her master, after a violent attack on her family. It’s certainly not one to share with the kids, it is unforgiving in its depiction of colonial-era violence and racism. I practically had to watch some scenes through gaps in my fingers.
That might put off several viewers, and the feeling of discomfort was palpable in the screening I was in, a few assorted gasps of horror and disbelief, which tells me straight out of the gate that the film is doing its job. Its confrontational style in its depiction of sexual and general violence will understandably scare away certain cinema-goers, but when you’re trying to tell a story such as this, to tell anything other than the brutal truth would be a disservice.
Yes, this is a film showing a section of history that many may be in a hurry to forget, specifically the British at large, this film is a harsh reminder of the colonial-era, and all that comes with it; the extermination of the aboriginal natives, the cruel treatment of convicts, and specifically the persecution of women convicts, they’re all on full display here, and in many ways, it is a more horrifying than any monster that can be put on screen: the horror of human cruelty.
Kent, also the writer of this film, has a keen eye for characters and how we connect to them, if this film is anything to go for. While it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Clare after what she goes through in the films opening act, she also undergoes a learning arc as the film progresses, realising that she may have more in common with the natives than she realises, and seeing the one-note ‘woman out for revenge’ character gain a few wrinkles is a nice touch.
Conversely, she also has a keen talent for making her antagonists infinitely hate-able. Whereas Clare undergoes an arc of learning and warmth, the diametric opposite happens to Hawkins (Sam Clafin) her former master and soldier, who descends deeper into madness and cruelty as the film goes on. You are led to believe at the start that as a person he couldn’t get worse, and you’d be wrong, very wrong.
It isn’t just these two characters who get interesting character arcs and development, mind, there’s also room for a few supporting characters to gain depth as well. Firstly, there’s Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) an aboriginal tracker tasked with helping Clare find her way through the wilderness, with whom she forms a bond, from a place of hostility and deep mistrust. Then there’s Eddie (Charlie Shotwell) a child convict who is used by Hawkins, who’s emotional journey is neatly crafted and well-told, and coincidentally, extremely heartbreaking.
As well-rounded and written as some of these characters are, there are some inconsistencies with the way they’re mapped out and their stories told, there’s another soldier character, a sergeant who also feels the wrath of Hawkins, the way his arc plays out we’re lead to believe he may be headed down a different path to his superior, but we’d be wrong; maybe this is the result of trying to spin too many plates as it were, and this side-plot was put on the back burner in favour of the main narrative.
There’s also a bit of an odd dynamic between Billy and Clare towards the films conclusion, one which is meant to show us how similar these two people actually are, and which does its job in that respect, but starts to seemingly pull down the path of emotionally connecting these two characters, which throws the dynamic off somewhat. The story of them growing to admire each other is done well, and I’m glad it didn’t go any further than just admiration, as it seemed like it might be.
There’s a lot about The Nightingale to unpack, in truth, and I think in some ways I’m still piecing it all together. The wilderness setting lends the film its dark, surreal feeling that borders on horror, especially during a few scattered nightmare sequences, which really show off Kent’s horror muscles, as they were genuinely unnerving, and achieved just the right level of uncomfortable for my liking, and that limit was tested to breaking point in this film.
I also really liked its use of framing to give the viewer subtle hints as to the characters similarities, there’s a few points in the film where Billy and Clare get symmetrical close-up shots, which is a really neat way of conveying the story visually, showing us their inner torment, using the medium to its fullest intent, rather than telling us flat out.
With its extremely well-written characters, and stunning, if at times unnerving, cinematography, The Nightingale breathes new life into the age-old narrative of the woman scorned, and her quest for revenge. It also serves as a reminder of humanity at its worst, and it left me genuinely speechless for a long time afterwards, even now, I’m struggling to adequately find the right words to put it into context. It’s brutal, undeniably so, and as a result makes it a very tough watch, which will leave you feeling like you’ve survived an ordeal yourself by the end, it plays you brilliantly, leaving you feeling exhausted.
A film that is as brilliant at telling its story as it will be hard to sell. The Nightingale made me feel a wide range of emotions from its first shot to its end credits, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it, and I’m not in a rush to find anything else like it either. It succeeds in a vacuum, using the unreal levels of violence to help tell its story, rather than as a vehicle to just portray violence. It’s powerful, it’s unsettling and it’s bloody brilliant.